SHAVUOT: THE FEAST OF PENTECOST (OR WEEKS)
A Jewish man was confronting a Christian man: “You know, you people borrowed the Ten Commandments from us.”
“Well,” responded the Christian, “we may have borrowed them from you, but you cannot say we kept them!”
Much of Christianity is borrowed from Judaism because Christianity is a form of Judaism. I am among a small minority who would define our faith as “Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism.” That perspective leads me to look differently at Pentecost.
Some churches observe Pentecost Sunday as a celebration of the Holy Spirit’s “coming” in a mighty rushing wind. We are certainly right to appreciate the Spirit’s power and work in our lives, but I am not sure an annual recognition is the best way to go about it. Walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)—in contrast to grieving Him (Eph. 4:3)—is one of the best ways to honor His presence. Still, we cannot help associating the Spirit with Pentecost. Since Pentecost predates Acts 2, we can better understand Acts 2 by first looking back further.
The Old and New Testaments are so interwoven that they cannot be separated. The New Testament book of Hebrews encourages us to investigate Old Testament rituals as previews of spiritual truths under the New Covenant: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (10:1, NIV).
When it comes to such shadows, the Feast of Pentecost is no exception. Many Christians are surprised to discover that Pentecost is a Jewish holiday, the description of which is found in Leviticus 23:15-23. In my understanding, Passover foreshadowed that Christ would die for our sins (1 Cor. 5:7). The Feast of Unleavened Bread explains one purpose in His death—to make us holy (unleavened). The Feast of Firstfruits anticipated His Resurrection as the “first fruits of them that sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). But Pentecost foreshadows the coming of the Spirit, and the resultant harvest, as seen in the second chapter of Acts.
The first three feasts cited above occurred within an eight-day period. My conclusion regarding a very delicate chronological issue is this: Christ died on Passover day, was buried during the Feast of Unleavened Bread and rose on Firstfruits morning. Firstfruits was celebrated the Sunday after Passover.
Pentecost was celebrated 50 days after Firstfruits, during the month of Sivan (May/June). Thus, Passover would be 50 days after that first Easter. Pentecost is also known as “Weeks” or Shavuot.
I believe that Pentecost foreshadows the uniting of Jewish and Gentile believers into one body through the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Age of the Spirit, and the great harvest time of the Great Commission.
PENTECOST BEFORE AND DURING JESUS’ DAY
In the Old Testament (Lev. 23:15-23), Pentecost was considered the primary harvest celebration. Firstfruits celebrated the barley harvest, but Pentecost celebrated the wheat harvest—the main staple. In addition to offering a sheep, the priest offered two loaves of bread before the Lord. Later Jews took God’s description of Israel as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey” as good reason to offer these other foods as well (Deut. 8:8).
Bruce Scott, in his book, The Feasts of Israel, describes the celebration:
As they traveled onward, the holiday pilgrims journeyed up to Jerusalem. During the day they sang songs of praise to God and rejoiced in His goodness. At night they slept in the squares of the towns through which they passed. Preceding their procession was an ox, its horns covered in gold and its head adorned with a wreath of olive leaves. A flute player also preceded the group, playing his instrument all the way into the city of Jerusalem. Once near their destination, the excited pilgrims sent word ahead of their imminent arrival. The chief priests and officers of the Temple came out to greet them….
They then took the baskets off their shoulders and held them at the top as the priests held them underneath. Together the priests and worshipers waved the…fruits before the Lord…. The worshipers…repeated a portion of Scripture…and left their baskets…next to the altar. The priests could them consume the…fruits. (p. 65).
Although Jews at the time of Christ acknowledged that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments of Pentecost, this became the emphasis of the holiday later, after the Temple was destroyed. Modern Jews describe the holiday this way: “Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavuot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality” (Jewish Virtual Library).
According to pre-Christian Jewish tradition, when God spoke the Law (Ex. 19-20), He spoke it in the 70 languages of the world. Though we cannot be sure that this tradition is accurate, it might date back to the first century. If so, the tradition might help us better understand the purpose for the tongues event of Acts 2.
PENTECOST IN ACTS 2
In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came on Pentecost in a way He had not come before. Though the Spirit of God has always been active in regeneration, there is a sense in which His relationship to the believer is now different under the New Covenant. He baptized (joined) believers into one body, a united people Paul would later call the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27). But opinions are all over the map about what happened on Pentecost in Acts 2. Because believers are divided over the event that united us (isn’t this ironic?), let me first attempt to clarify our understanding.
First, Pentecost was a timed event. The gathered believers were praying together as they were waiting for the Spirit to empower them. Just as Christ had to die on Passover and be resurrected on First Fruits, so the coming of the Spirit timed for Pentecost. Contrary to countless hymns and sermons, the text does not state that the church was praying for the Spirit to come, but rather that they were praying while they were waiting for Him to come.
Second, the 3,000 people who came to Christ on Pentecost had been prepared (many of them for years, probably) to accept Christ. Most would have memorized the Torah and been fluent in the Old Testament. Many had heard the preaching of John the Baptist, and all of them would have heard something about Jesus. This is part of the reason why so many were converted at one time.
When Paul preached to the gentiles later in Acts, for example, smaller numbers responded. It is not that the church had lost the Holy Spirit’s power; it was, rather, a matter of God preparing hearts and people being in the right place at the right time according to His plan.
The 3,000 saved on Pentecost began a massive world-wide harvest that has been advancing over the centuries. Pentecost reminds us of the Savior’s words in Matthew 9:37-38, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Third, it is reasonable to believe the languages spoken on Pentecost were real earthly languages, not miracles of “hearing.” If the Jewish tradition that God spoke the Law in the 70 languages dates back to this time, then the Pentecost of Acts 2 would have appeared comparable to God’s giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Even the noise and the tongues of flame would have been viewed as a parallel to the mighty noise and fire at Sinai nearly 1,500 years earlier.
PENTECOST AND THE GIVING OF THE LAW: CONTRASTS AND COMPARISONS
On Pentecost 3,000 came to spiritual life. When the Law was given, 3,000 died (Ex. 32:28). Are these numbers merely coincidental, or indicative of the work our Sovereign God?
On Pentecost, the priest presented two loaves before the Lord. One can see how Jewish teachers might understand this to symbolize the unity between the people of Israel (northern Israel with southern Judah). Under the New Covenant, we can understand that the two loaves foreshadow the uniting of Jewish believers and gentile believers into one body. Through the baptizing work of the Spirit, both people groups were united into a single body (1 Cor. 12:13). The distinction between believing Jews and believing Gentiles has been eliminated with reference to our position in Christ (Eph. 2:13-15). The Age of the Torah has been altered as we now experience the amazing Age of the Spirit.
The Old Covenant was initiated at Passover but formalized at Pentecost (when the Law was given). The New Covenant was initiated at Passover (Good Friday) and formalized at Pentecost.
For centuries, Pentecost had a variety of meanings for the Jewish people, but one of those meanings was prophetic. Thus, Pentecost (which was about a physical harvest) presaged the Great Commission harvest we now experience. The anticipated harvest would entail all language groups and peoples, as suggested by the tongues (languages) spoken that day in Acts 2. Pentecost ushered in the uniting of all true believers into the body of Christ. Pentecost ushered in the Age of the Spirit, an era in which believers are not merely regenerated by the Spirit, but also uniquely empowered, gifted, indwelt and sometimes filled by the Spirit.